Analytics is vital for making well-informed marketing decisions, but how Google Analytics measures, tracks, and reports data is always evolving. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the latest iteration of the popular analytics platform that was released in October 2020, replacing Universal Analytics (UA) as the default for new properties. With UA slated to shut down on July 1, 2023, it’s crucial that marketers get familiar with GA4 sooner rather than later.
In this article, the analytics experts at Lau Marketing are going to break down GA4 and how it compares to UA to help prepare your business for the next generation. Let’s begin!
Differences Between GA4 and UA
GA4 is a significant departure from its predecessor. With the UA shutdown quickly approaching, marketers need to understand the biggest differences between the two versions to migrate from UA to GA4 successfully. Here are some of the biggest updates to know about:
The most notable change is the measurement model — UA uses a session-based data model, whereas GA uses an event-based data model. UA relies on cookie-based tracking, which sends cookies to the user’s web browser so the site or app can monitor and store activity during the user’s session. A single session includes all of the user interactions, such as pageviews, ecommerce transactions, and events, that happen within a given timeframe.
GA4 does away with third-party cookies and relies solely on first-party cookies. It collects and stores all interactions as events rather than sessions, which is great for measuring distinct user behavior like page loads, link clicks, and completed purchases. As a result, GA4 provides more customer-centric insights and gives a clearer picture of your sales funnel.
Privacy Consent Mode
With the rise of data privacy regulations like GDPR, Google has responded with the release of ‘Consent Mode’, which allows some level of tracking while maintaining compliance. According to Google’s Analytics Help:
“Consent mode lets you adjust how your Google tags behave based on the consent status of your users. You can indicate whether consent has been granted for Analytics and Ads cookies. Google's tags will dynamically adapt, only utilizing measurement tools for the specified purposes when consent has been given by the user.”
Although you won’t be able to target or identify users in GA4, you can continue reporting conversions, content, and attribution.
Monthly Hit Limits
The free version of UA had a monthly limit of 10 million hits, but GA4 has removed that monthly limit. However, GA4 does have a limit of 500 different events that can be tracked.
Spam referrals are a common data accuracy problem in UA. This is because spammers could find a property’s ID and populate the property with fake data using Measurement Protocol, which allows developers to make HTTP requests to send raw user interaction data directly to Analytics servers.
With GA4, Google now forces Measurement Protocol hits to include a secret key that’s only visible in the GA4 property’s data stream settings. Only hits with a valid key can send data to a GA4 property, improving spam prevention.
User-ID in UA and GA4 both provide an identity space for property owners to analyze their data. However, User-ID in GA4 properties delivers a cross-platform and cross-device view of how their users interact with the website or app. To access this feature, you have to be able to generate unique, persistent IDs and consistently assign those IDs to your users, then include the IDs with the data you send to Analytics.
The data associated with the User-ID allows Analytics to create a single user journey. Unlike UA, a GA4 property incorporates User-ID natively across all reporting, analysis, and insights without requiring a separate User-ID reporting view.
In a UA property, a session can comprise multiple pageviews, events, ecommerce transactions, and social interactions. Sessions typically end when there’s a 30-minute period of inactivity or another qualifying reset event occurs. You may notice more active users and sessions in GA4 than in UA due to the differences in active user calculation and session counting.
GA4’s session metrics are derived from the session_start event, an automatically collected event (more on event types in the next section). The session’s duration is based on the time span between the first and last event in the session; there’s no limit to how long a session can last. By default, a GA4 session times out after 30 minutes of user inactivity.
Custom dimensions and custom metrics in UA are great for adding more information to collected data for deeper analysis. In GA4, event parameters perform this function. Configuring custom dimensions in GA4 can be done in just several steps by setting the dimension name, scope (event or user), and event parameter.
With custom metrics, you configure the metric name, description (optional but recommended), event parameter, and unit of measurement. By default, custom metrics are always event scope.
UA’s content grouping feature lets you group pages together that share a theme so you may view and compare metrics between your different content pillars. Let’s say you have a content group called 'Women Swimwear.' You can see the total page views, avg. time on page, bounce rate, and other metrics, as well as drill drown to see each landing page’s performance within that group.
GA4 instead has one predefined event parameter — "content_group" in the global site tag (gtag.js) or "Content Group" in Google Tag Manager (GTM) that populates data into the "Content Group" dimension. If you have additional UA content group dimensions you would like to track in GA4, they can be implemented separately as event-scoped custom dimensions.
A GA4 property only allows for a single reporting view and doesn’t offer customized views like UA. You may apply data filters (e.g. exclude internal traffic) to your GA4 reporting view at the property level to customize your reporting view. The practice of creating multiple views labeled All Web Site Data, Test, and Master will soon be gone.
There are several things to keep in mind with the GA reporting view:
Data filters are not applied retroactively
Testing filters is crucial since you can no longer have a test view
Up to 10 data filters are allowed per GA4 property
Cross-domain tracking is tricky to set up in UA, partly because it requires changes at both the tracking and admin levels. GA4 makes it a more seamless process since cross-domain tracking can be configured through just an admin setting rather than tags and admin modifications.
If you’re well-versed with UA, you may find that GA4 reports are a bit of a learning curve and that some UA reports have no direct equivalent in GA4. While UA offers comprehensive built-in reports, GA4 has fewer standard reports and leans more toward custom report templates for property owners that require additional reporting. The upside to fewer built-in reports is that it makes GA4 more beginner-friendly than UA since they’re not overwhelmed by options.
GA4 requires little to no configuration for tracking enhanced measurement events. In UA, enhanced measurement tracking typically requires custom GTM configuration. With GA4, simply enable enhanced measurement options for your property’s web data stream to capture events like page_view, scroll, click, video_start, file_download, and more.
GA4 offers a free connection to BigQuery, which was previously only available to Google Analytics 360 customers. Now you can export data to BigQuery to quickly process very large data sets without upgrading. Exporting data from GA4 to BigQuery is free, and you only pay for the actual data storage and data querying when you exceed the 1 TB of querying per month and 10 GB of storage limit of the Google Cloud free tier.
GA4 Event Categories
Since GA4 uses an event-based data model, let’s take a closer look at the four event categories available. By leveraging events, you’ll be able to improve data collection, gain deeper customer insights, and make smarter marketing decisions.
Category 1: Automatically Collected Events
GA4 automatically collects certain parameters by default, which means you don’t have to do anything. Examples of automatically collected events:
Category 2: Enhanced Measurement Events
If you want to track more events that aren’t automatically collected, check out enhanced measurement events and enable the ones you want. Some enhanced measurement events are collected by default, for example:
This feature gives GA4 a leg up over UA as all of the enhanced measurement events would require manual tracking in UA.
Category 3: Recommended Events
Recommended events measure additional features and behavior on your site or app. They have predefined names and parameters, such as generate_lead, purchase, and sign_up. All you need to do is set up the event through gtag.js or GTM.
Category 4: Custom Event
If there’s an event you want to track that isn’t available in the other categories, you can create your own custom events. Creating a custom event is similar to configuring a recommended event, except that you define the name and parameters.
Keep in mind that each GA4 property has a collection limit of 500 distinctly named events. Automatically collected, enhanced measurement, and recommended events don’t impact the limit, so make sure to review them first before implementing a custom event.
Pros and Cons of GA4
As you can see, GA4 has quite a few major differences from its predecessor UA. While the new Analytics offers multiple advantages, there are some drawbacks.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the top pros and cons of GA4:
Pro: Predictive Metrics
GA4 leverages machine learning to predict the future behavior of your users. By enabling the benchmarking setting and collecting a large variety or volume of recommended events, you can view predictive models for purchase probability, churn probability, and predictive revenue. With these predictive metrics, you’re able to learn more about your customers.
Con: Historical Data Won’t Transfer Over
A disadvantage of GA4 is that it requires you to create a new property. This means that none of your UA property’s historical data will transfer over to GA4. Once your new GA4 property is set up, new user and session data collection will start.
Pro: Cross-Device and Cross-Platform Reporting
One of the benefits of GA’s event-based data model is that it allows for cross-device reporting and cross-platform reporting. UA offered limited support for these and usually required roll-up reporting, a feature only available for Analytics 360 accounts. With GA4, you can get a better understanding of customer behavior across devices and sites/apps.
Con: Tricky to Track Complex Conversions
Automatically collected events and enhanced measurement events make it easy to track simple conversions, such as ad clicks or file downloads. However, tracking more complex conversions like purchases could trip up users who aren’t tech-savvy as it requires implementing code with GTM or gtag.js.
Pro: Reporting and Analysis Tools
GA4 provides simplified pre-built reports with the ability to use custom report templates. With their revamped suite of reporting and analysis tools, marketers will be able to quickly identify trends and data irregularities.
Get Ready for the Future of Analytics
Making the switch from UA to GA4 is no small matter, but it’s not as scary as it sounds either. The new Analytics offers more customer-centric insights while removing some of the clutter of the previous version for a more streamlined experience. With Google shutting down UA in July 2023, it’s crucial that property owners don’t wait to migrate their site or app. Partner with analytics experts to position your business for digital marketing success.
Get in touch with Lau Marketing to explore our analytics solutions, from setup and configuration to data analytics strategy!